Life Insurance Co. Building
Henry John Klutho, 1911-12
Construction on this building began a month after the start of Klutho’s St. James Building, and it was completed two months before. Both buildings were constructed of reinforced concrete. The architect was no doubt very proud and busy to have two such great architectural works rising simultaneously on the city’s skyline. Although The Florida Life Building was Jacksonville’s tallest building for less than a year, it was and perhaps still is Jacksonville’s purest statement of a “skyscraper.” It is a narrow, beautifully proportioned tower that soars vertically, giving an impression of being much taller than its actual eleven-story height. The lower two stories form the tower’s base, richly adorned with glazed terra-cotta and originally featuring a suspended glass canopy over the building’s entrance, similar to that of the St. James Building. Broad plate glass Chicago-style windows accentuate the Forsyth Street facade, drawing the eye upward along the slender pilasters to a crowning burst of terra-cotta scrollwork, which in turn supports an ornate copper cornice and a parapet. The dramatic scrolled capitals at the top of the pilasters are evolved from the intricate ornamentation of Louis Sullivan. The Florida Life Building fulfills Sullivan’s definition of a skyscraper perhaps as well as any building ever constructed by Sullivan himself: “It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exhaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a dissenting line.” Klutho's majestic skyscraper outlasted the Florida Life Insurance Company, which went bankrupt in 1915.
Architect and historian Robert Broward describes the Florida Life Building:
This narrow, elegant building is unique among Prairie School buildings. . . The Laura Street facade reveals a mature expression of the Chicago window developed by Sullivan, Root, and others of the pioneering Chicago School. The total design, however, can best be classed as Prairie School not only because of its crisp, rectangular openings from the street level upward and its abstract, decorative, terra cotta embellishment and efflorescent capitals at the top floor but also because it falls into the time frame of the Prairie School more than a decade after the end of the Chicago School.
The building's first two stories form a visual “base” for the tower of offices above. From the third through tenth floors, the repetitive Chicago windows are set deep within the projecting brick pilasters and are unified by the sills and heads of the spandrels. This sensitive detailing creates an emphatic verticality to the narrow facade. The crowning glory of the Florida Life tower was the treatment of the soaring corner pilasters. Here Klutho placed polychrome terra cotta rectangular bases, which rest on the second story projecting cornice. Each has three circular motifs with pyramidal center projections. Above each base is an abstract representation of a rising or setting sun in a fan shape. From these two bases begins the corner pilasters, thin vertical shafts of terra cotta rising the full nine stories above the cornice. They culminated in Gothic-like, intertwined tracery that exploded into two great foliated bursts, forming unique terra cotta capitals.
The Bad News: In 1994 its then-owner, Nations Bank, perpetrated a dastardly act upon this beautiful building. A piece of copper flashing fell to the sidewalk during a heavy wind, and the bank, without considering the damage it was inflicting upon the building, put up scaffolding and air-hammered away the beautiful terra cotta Sullivanesque capitals from the eleventh floor.
The Good News: In 2002 the City of Jacksonville purchased both the Florida Life and Bisbee buildings, as well as the “Marble Bank”, which is framed by intersection of the two Klutho skyscrapers. Plans are under way in 2006 to restore these three buildings, which form one of the most unique architectural groupings in Florida.
Archival photos courtesy of Robert C. Broward.
• • •